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[liberationtech] Haystack and informed consent—A legal/philosophical response to Jacob's concenrs

Evgeny Morozov evgeny.morozov at
Sat Sep 11 12:06:31 PDT 2010

Disclaimer: I'm neither philosopher nor computer expert. On the bright side,
I know how to search the Internet.

Babak Siavoshy in March
“Double-click on Haystack and you browse the Internet anonymously and
safely. It’s encrypted at such a level it would take thousands of years to
figure out what you’re saying. It’s a potent open-society tool. It’s just a
matter of getting it to Iran — and that’s still illegal."

Babak Siavoshy in Sept 2010: see below

My non-philosopher's common sense dictates that Haystack's testers a) were
told to specifically disregard whatever Haystack's management were telling
to the media b) were misled into believing that Haystack was more secure
than it really was.

If it is a), I would like Babak to publicly acknowledge this. If it is b), I
don't see how the harm principle applies.



On Sat, Sep 11, 2010 at 7:45 AM, Babak Siavoshy <
babak at> wrote:

> *Haystack and informed consent—A legal/philosophical response to Jacob*
> First, I would like to introduce myself: My name is Babak Siavoshy, I am a
> director at the CRC, and a philosopher and lawyer by training and
> profession.  I do not specialize in technical issues, and am therefore not
> well versed in the common language of this board; I apologize in advance for
> my lack of expertise.  And I also want to apologize for the somewhat
> legal/philosophical and academic discussion of the issues to which I intend
> to subject the list.
> I appreciate Jacob initiating this debate—as I have told my colleagues and
> friends in recent days, I believe that the increasingly open discussion
> about Haystack and anti-censorship tools generally has been a positive
> development that will make this community stronger in the long run.  I
> also want to note the positive and polite tone with which Jacob has
> initiated this conversation, despite the increasingly personal nature some
> of the attacks on our organization have taken as of late.  I urge each of
> you to follow his lead.
> Yesterday Jacob issued an ultimatum: cease all testing of the BETA version
> of Haystack or he will publish a document airing security flaws in the
> program.  While I have not spoken with Jacob, I am told both by Austin and
> others that his intentions are genuine, and that this type of practice is
> common in the security industry.
> Dan Colascione, our technical director and the chief architect of Haystack,
> is meeting with Jacob in Seattle in order to discuss some of the technical
> issues.  Dan will also join this list serve in the near future and
> respond, in details that neither Austin nor I could present, to the
> technical concerns that have been raised.  Please hold your technical
> questions until then.
> But the concerns raised by Jacob are not, at their heart, technical
> concerns—they are *moral*, *ethical*, and *political* concerns—and I think
> that I am well positioned to speak to them.  While I am not an expert on
> Iran, I am intimately familiar with the socio-political situation in the
> country, and I know the risks and consequences of dissent both through
> personal experience and the experiences of family members and close friends.
> As to ethical issues, those on this list who have training in the law will
> know that ethics is a central part of this profession, whose members must
> regularly balance duties—sometimes conflicting—owed to their clients, the
> courts, and to the integrity of the legal system.
> I address the moral, ethical, and political issues raised by Jacob here:
> *The threshold question: what level of risk is acceptable, and under what
> circumstances?*
> * *
> *Assume the following:*
> For the purpose of this discussion, I would like to assume certain facts *
> arguendo*:
> 1.) Assume, for the purpose of this discussion, that a Haystack BETA tester
> undergoes a certain risk every time he or she tests the program in Iran.
> 2.) Assume, for the purpose of this discussion, that we can quantify that
> risk as follows: using Haystack BETA is safer than using an ordinary proxy,
> but, say, less safe than using a program like Tor.  It is *somewhere* in
> that range.
> (Again, I do not know the extent to which these statements are true. I am
> no technical expert and that is not the point of this exercise.)
> * *
> *The threshold question and Jacob and my differing answers to that
> question:*
> * *
> The only question that remains—at least, the moral, ethical, political
> question that remains—is:  *assuming premises #1 and #2, above, under what
> circumstances is it proper to distribute the BETA version of Haystack to
> testers in Iran*?
> *Jacob’s answer*: “*under no circumstances may Haystack be distributed if
> #1 and #2 are true*.  *The acceptable level of risk is determined by
> expert third parties, and not by the tester himself.”*  This is my
> anecdotal understanding of Jacob’s position, both from the message Jacob
> previously sent, and from Austin’s description of his conversation with
> Jacob.  (If I misunderstood Jacob’s position, I apologize in advance—do
> not ascribe my reading of that position to Jacob without checking with him
> first.)
> *My answer:* “*The level of acceptable risk to a BETA tester of Haystack
> is determined by the tester’s informed consent.”*  It is the tester, and
> not a third party, who decides the acceptable risk threshold.  If the
> risks, and the degree to which the risks are unknown, are properly *
> disclosed* in easy to understand, non-technical terms, then the tester’s
> act of consenting to the risk ends the moral inquiry.
> I think Jacob’s answer (if I understand it correctly) is incorrect as an
> intuitive moral matter, as an ethical principle, and as a statement made in
> light of the present political context.  I think my answer is correct
> under all of those criteria, though I think the CRC needs to adjust its
> testing methodology to conform to the model I am proposing.
> I will explain my reasons below.**
> *The applicable ethical rule and its exceptions:*
> *The correct rule*: I think that the correct ethical rule in this context
> is that the level of acceptable risk for any activity depends, primarily, on
> two factors: disclosure and consent*.  If the risks are disclosed, and the
> subject can and does consent to those risks, then the risk is acceptable*.
> This is not a novel proposition.  It has its roots in John Stuart Mill’s harm
> principle <>.  It is based in
> principles of moral sovereignty and human autonomy and dignity.
> We see it expressed everywhere in the law.  In the context of medical
> care, it is called “informed consent.”  In the context of legal
> representation, it is called “consent to potential conflicts of interests.”
> In the context of the torts law it is often called “assumption of risk”;
> and in the context of product liability it is instantiated in the law
> precluding liability whenever the manufacturer properly warns the user of
> the dangers of a product.  In each case, the basic, underlying ethical
> principle is the same—a risk or conflict is *acceptable* to the extent
> that it is *understood* by the risk-taker and therefore *consented to* by
> that risk taker.
> * *
> *Exceptions to the rule—activities that should be banned regardless of
> disclosure and consent: *There are, of course, some activities which, in
> conventional morality and practice, are banned categorically regardless of
> disclosure and consent.  I can think of two classes of activities.
> *Where consent is seen to be impossible:*  In the first category, we ban
> an activity because we do not believe one or more of the parties can
> properly consent to the activity.  The ban on the use of certain drugs is,
> at least partly grounded in the fact that the drugs are *addictive*, and
> thus thought to reduce the user’s ability to consent.  And, to use a
> quintessential example from the law school classroom—ostensibly consensual
> sex between a minor and an adult is banned in many jurisdictions on the
> theory that minors cannot, as a group, properly consent to sex with an
> adult.
> *When the activity carries insurmountable negative externalities:* The
> other category of activities that are banned in society despite being
> engaged in with full disclosure and consent are activities that are seen to
> have negative externalities.  This is another part of the rationale for
> banning drugs.  Society sees fit to prohibit the use of certain drugs,
> even with disclosure and consent, because society believes that drug use has
> negative effects that go beyond the user’s effect on his own body.  The
> same type of rationale (rightly or wrongly) arguably forms the theoretical
> underpinning for banning prostitution.  The consenting actor gets to make
> his own risk assessment, but he does not get to make risk assessments for
> third parties/society harmed by his conduct.  Those third parties/society
> must be given a chance to make their own risk assessments.
> *Application to the present case: *
> * *
> The application of this ethical principle to the question in this case is
> fairly straightforward.  Whether it is proper to distribute Haystack BETA
> to a tester depends *only* on whether we have properly disclosed the risks
> of using the program and whether the tester has properly consented to those
> risks.
> * *
> I want to anticipate one objection to my conclusion: the objection is that
> the average tester in Iran can never properly ascertain the risk of a test,
> because they are not familiar with the technical concepts involved.  This
> objection is essentially modeled on the “impossible consent” exceptions to
> the general rule that I discussed above.
> This objection fails.  In our society and in conventional understanding,
> the lack of technical expertise does not remove the subject’s ability to
> morally consent to an activity or procedure.
> The quintessential example is medical care, and the doctrine of *informed
> consent* in the medical field.  A patient can consent to a medical
> procedure even if the patient does not understand the technical details of
> the procedure.  *A patient can—and patients do—properly consent even** to
> a medical procedure whose risks are **unknown**.*  The patient simply has
> to be informed the extent to which the risks are unknown.
> This general principle applies in the same way in the context of
> anti-censorship software.  The risks must be disclosed to the extent
> possible and in a language ascertainable to a non-expert; and the extent to
> which the risks are unknown must also be disclosed.  *After a proper
> disclosure, it is consent, and consent alone (i.e., not Jacob, not Evgeny,
> and not anyone else) that determines whether distribution is proper. *
> [The second possible objection is that distribution of anticensorship
> software would have insurmountable negative externalities and must therefore
> be prohibited.  I don’t think anyone has made this objection, so I will
> not address it here.]
> The conclusion: if Haystack’s imposes a risk on the user which is somewhere
> between an ordinary proxy and Tor (again, I have no idea if this is
> true—these are merely assumptions I made at the beginning of the argument)
> then testers who *understand* this risk (and the description of the level
> of risk should be much, much more specific than what I gave earlier) should
> be permitted to use it without interference from third parties.
> *Political considerations:***
> * *
> Several political considerations further support my model over the model I
> am attributing to Jacob.
> First, Jacob’s argument incorrectly treats Iranian testers as passive
> subjects.  It is, in other words, premised on a patronizing moral
> principle: we should decide what level of risk is acceptable to others.  As
> an Iranian, and a person familiar with the situation and the people affected
> by the Iranian government’s brutal repression, I cannot agree with this
> statement.  And as an American, who like most Americans has at least a
> sliver (probably more) of libertarian blood flowing in my veins, I have a
> gut reaction against this type of proposition.
> I will only say that Iranian testers know the risks of defying the
> government.  They live with that risk every day.  They see their brothers
> and sisters beat in the street, and harassed by police officers; they see
> their government pass laws that make it a crime to do things others take for
> granted; they hear stories of officers breaking into dorm rooms and
> confiscating and destroying computers; and they know the risk of using a
> BETA test of Haystack, a final version of Tor or of Freegate.
> Second, the type of patronizing argument envisioned here—which states that
> a third party must determine the acceptable level of risk Iranian testers
> are willing to take—is generally inconsistent with the philosophy underlying
> the anti-censorship movement.  Anti-censorship is premised on the idea
> that we do not make decisions for others.  *It is premised on the idea of
> providing information and providing people with the opportunity for in
> self-determination*.  A categorical rule banning certain risks is not only
> inconsistent with basic moral and ethical principles, it is inconsistent
> with the basic philosophical framework underlying the anti-censorship
> movement.
> *What this means for us—proposed compromise:***
> I have done what I think is a thorough analysis of the ethical issues
> involved.  There is room for an open debate, and those who know me know
> that I am always willing to change my mind when I see that I am wrong.  At
> this point, however, I think it is fairly clear that the proper model for
> testing Haystack is the model of “informed consent”.
> While the CRC generally has this model in mind in its testing procedures, I
> think that we need to have a thorough discussion about specific steps that
> we can take within the organization to adhere to fully adhere to this model
> There are four changes that I propose we make in order to fit this informed
> consent model.
> 1.) *Disclaimer*.  First, I propose that we include a disclaimer of the
> risks of Haystack—including the unknown risks of Haystack—with every BETA
> copy of Haystack that is distributed.  The disclaimer would be presented
> in the user’s language, and would give the user another opportunity to make
> the risk calculus before using the program.  Second, I propose that we be
> more clear in our materials—absolutely, unequivocally clear—that Haystack is
> in the BETA stage of testing.
> 2.) *Distribution*.  We do inform all of our testers that the program is
> risky.  But we have less control over others who obtain the program from
> our testers.  However, Haystack’s functionality allows us to revoke access
> to servers from individual users.  As our second measure, I propose that
> we take the necessary steps, both through directives and any technical means
> available, to ensure that each Haystack BETA tester does not distribute the
> program to others.
> 3.) *Volume*.  The more copies of Haystack BETA are out there, the more
> likely it is that certain users will use the program without informed
> consent.  I propose that we restrict our BETA testing pool to a small
> number—less than 20 users.  Again, my understanding is that there are
> technical means to enforce the limits on the testers.  Before any increase
> in our testing pool, we will take measures to reduce the risks posed by the
> program to users.
> 4) *Risk assessment and other measures.*  Jacob proposed a number of other
> measures that are technical in nature and may reduce the risks allegedly
> posed by Haystack BETA, or make it easier to disclose some of those risks.
> To the extent that this is true, and consistent with the principles I
> discussed above, we should take technical measures consistent with some of
> Jacob’s and others’ suggestions.
> I think these are reasonable compromises, they will make Haystack BETA
> safer, and I hope that they assuage Jacob’s concerns.
> And now to Jacob’s ultimatum—that he will release confidential information
> about the BETA version of a program that is being distributed to a few
> individuals.  I’ve discussed and (I think) addressed the moral, ethical,
> and political arguments underlying Jacob’s proposal above; and I think that
> it is clear from my discussion that I take Jacob’s concerns seriously and
> that I respect his views and the views of the tech community.
> As I mentioned, I think Jacob’s conduct is well-intentioned, but based in
> misguided and patronizing moral and ethical principles.  As an Iranian, I
> have a great deal of experience with those who sincerely believe that they
> can make moral decisions for a community.  I do not particularly
> appreciate this posture.  So I say this to Jacob, and I say it as
> earnestly and gently as I can, with the aim of encouraging further debate: a
> well-intentioned, misguided bully is still a bully. (I do not mean to
> insinuate that there is any moral equivalence between Jacob’s ultimatum and
> the atrocities committed in Iran: there is not; but it is an analogy that
> makes a point).
> Whether we will abide by Jacob’s ultimatum or not will depend on the CRC’s
> continued discussions regarding the technical issues that Jacob has raised
> and will raise with Dan and Austin in the upcoming days.  I also believe,
> from my conversations with Dan and Austin, that we will hereto be more open
> to discussing certain technical aspects of the program with the tech
> community.  I think the measures I have proposed will, in the long run,
> contribute to the safety of Iranian testers of Haystack, and perhaps of
> other anti-censorship software as well.
> These are all positive developments, and I thank each of you for your
> continued contribution to the debate.
> Babak Siavoshy
> Censorship Research Center
> On Sep 10, 2010, at 11:09 PM, Jacob Appelbaum wrote:
> Hi,
> As some of you know, I've been researching Haystack on a technical
> level. I've learned a great deal of information about it and certainly
> enough to make some definitive statements. Most of my research was
> confirmed today and after speaking with Austin Heap he agreed with me on
> many of my points. I was relieved that we were able to have such a
> productive conversation and the outcome is probably the safest possible
> at the moment.
> I think that Austin has his heart in the right place and today he
> claimed to have taken some actions that demonstrate this to me.
> Specifically, Austin claimed and agreed that I could state the following
> on this mailing list:
> Haystack has been turned off as of ~19:00 PST.
> I have no independent confirmation on the truth of this claim but I
> believe Austin was being sincere with me. I invite Austin, Babek, and
> Daniel to confirm this statement in public.
> Furthermore, Austin stated that Haystack will not be run again until
> there is a solid published threat model, a solid peer reviewed design,
> and a real security review of the Haystack implementation. He has also
> agreed to review the claims made on his websites. I imagine that he will
> have to check in with others before following through with those claims
> but I believe he has made them in good faith.
> He additionally agreed that Haystack will not use human testers moving
> forward because of the risks involved.
> He has agreed to engage with this mailing list to address the concerns
> voiced here as well as those voiced elsewhere.
> In the interest of not putting people in Iran at serious risk, I am
> going to remain silent for the time being on the issues I have
> discovered. I reserve the right to change my mind if I believe that
> people are being put into harms way.
> I believe that we only benefit from more circumvention, anonymity,
> privacy and security tools but only if they're safely designed, safely
> implemented, and honestly reviewed in the open.
> A rich ecosystem of safe to use tools is important for the world that we
> all want to create.
> I look forward to Austin and Daniel engaging with this mailing list and
> with the rest of the circumvention community openly.
> Sincerely,
> Jacob
> --
> Babak Siavoshy
> Managing Director
> Censorship Research Center
> babak at
> 510-684-7177
> _______________________________________________
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